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March 2, 2020

“Ain’t nobody in here but us distracted farmers . . . . “

Greetings to all of our friends all over the world.  I should have recognized the foreshadowing a couple years ago, when visiting my daughter, who then lived in Chattanooga.  A flurry of text messages came over with photos of supposed “Buff Orpingtons” Alex had purchased from Craigslist.  “What?!?”  I sent back.  “We are NOT ready for chickens again yet!!”

Several years prior, we’d had happy Buckeyes for a few years, roosting on the back porch and in trees and shrubs around the house (they had a coop, but liked the shrubs better). Then one day it was all over:  all our chickens were slaughtered all around our house when rogue coyotes got in the mood for some fun, and I swore we’d never have them again until we had more secure infrastructure in place. 

Nevertheless, we had new chickens.  But those were here to feed family and friends, not to sell.  Fast forward a couple years, and my family is working at trying direct marketing and diversifying our business, in order to keep the farm sustainable long after we’re gone.  We bought four big ol’ horse trailers, planning to convert them into moving coops, pulled by tractor around to a new place each day because chickens follow the cattle as they rotate through pastures.  (more on why later)

Everyone began researching what breeds should best be hardy, lay the most eggs, thrive in our local climate, and support the biodiversity of the species (so – looking for heritage breeds or at least crosses of heritage breeds).  We imagined buying these hens in the spring, after we had the horse-trailer-coops ready, and after we’d found guard dogs to keep the local coyotes in line.

Enter CRAIGSLIST.  !!!  and sure enough, here are some Amish folks ready to sell FIVE HUNDRED chickens at an astonishingly great deal . . . . .  I don’t know about you (I’m not even religious), but their being Amish somehow gives them automatic credibility to most of us.  Surely they’ve actually got what they claim, and surely they’ve been using compassionate, sustainable methods.  And when everything costs so much today, a farm must work hard to break even, so no one could turn this deal down!

So our herdsman, Matthew, brought home a trailer overflowing with chickens, and of course, none of us could resist them.  If you visit us on Instagram or Facebook, you’ll see they’re a lovely, warm, mahogany and if you’ve ever been around chickens, you’ll understand how funny and endearing they are.  Upon arrival, one flew out and into the pig lot, and to our horror, was immediately gobbled up!!  Shaking, we questioned whether this enterprise would EVER work!

Though the flock was confused and bewildered at first, they have quickly become pets, running up out of the field to meet us whenever we drive by, so I am certain their former owners were good to them.  Thank goodness, today, the drove of pigs seems to accept the flock as family:  it’s not uncommon to see a chicken sitting, comically at ease, on a pig’s back!

Even so, we all agreed that as we can’t know for sure what they ate before, or how they lived, we can’t sell eggs quite yet, because we need them on pasture and running loose for several weeks before we can count on their eggs’ offering the same high quality we expect from our meat.  But oh my gosh, we’ve got eggs coming out our ears!!!! 

The trailers weren’t quite ready, but we managed to find Luna and Annabelle, sweet Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd crosses, in South Carolina, and rushed off to get them.  We have a huge area inside a big open barn where we set up temporary quarters for this new part of our family, and poor Matthew is busting his behind welding roosts into the trailers so we can get them all out on pasture as soon as possible. 

So, we’re getting there. 

Now for a little education for non-chicken folks on why they follow the cattle.  Y’all already know we are loath to use pesticides, for several reasons.  Don’t want them on/in our animals anyway, don’t want to handle them ourselves, but you may not guess the most important reason:  our soil’s health! 

Years ago, because the pharmaceutical and veterinary industries teach us it’s the way to have healthy animals (and it is, if you overgraze and mistreat your pastures), we used a medicine to kill parasites in all our cattle twice a year.  This is insanely expensive, financially, but, we thought, compassionate treatment. 

But it’s even more expensive, if one accounts for soil health.  Guess what results from this careful health practice?  That same medicine, actually a poison, never hurt the cattle, but went right through them into their poop and onto our soil.  Any idea what happens there?  All of our insects ingested the poison, and either became sick or else pooped it out for even smaller microbiota to process, killing or weakening them.  Was this just an unfortunate side effect of a necessary evil?

Turns out, no!  As we became involved with the sustainable ag movement, we learned from successful graziers that when animals enjoy (just as with humans >DUH!<) a healthier diet, full of diversity, and aren’t forced to eat monocultures and scavenge into the dirt in overgrazed fields, parasites are fewer and easily managed by digestive systems.  Eureka:  allowing our grazers to eat what, when, and how they evolved to eat makes sense!  Our animals even choose a few bites here and there of various different poisonous plants, such as poison hemlock and perilla mint, which can work as natural wormers.

But where do the chickens come in?  Our choice not to use harmful chemicals in the Tennessee climate means insects can thrive, and often flies annoy the cattle.  But flies lay their eggs in manure.  The eggs hatch into larvae three days later, creating excellent protein:  a chicken’s favorite food!  Each time the cattle move to a new pasture, the chicken move, three days behind, to gobble up all the larvae and cut down on the flies on our farm, while at the same time, breaking up manure piles and spreading the “black gold” out to nourish more of the soil.

By now, you’ve probably had more than you’d planned to learn, but at least, if we ever get ready to sell our eggs, you’ll know they’ve come from a flock that earns their living in more ways than just laying, and who get to choose their own diet from a diverse smorgasbord of plants and bugs in clean, open greenspace.  Matthew laughed and told me a prop plane flew over yesterday and the birds “went nuts!” gathering from all over the pasture, scrambling over and under each other trying to hide under the trailer.  Follow us on social media to learn how this eggscapade continues, and sign up for our newsletter to be alerted whenever we do start selling!

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